Review: In the brilliant Romanian drama ‘Întregalde,’ no good deed goes unexamined

People stand around a car stuck in the mud in a scene from the movie "Întregalde."
Ilona Brezoianu, left, Maria Popistasu and Alex Bogdan in the movie “Întregalde.”
(Grasshopper Film)

“Întregalde” is the name of a stretch of Romanian countryside, a world of muddy roads, gnarled trees, a few scattered villages and — though we never see them — hungry wolves and bears. It’s not the loveliest place to get stranded, especially for a trio of humanitarian aid workers who, while delivering sacks of food to villagers before the Christmas holidays, soon find themselves shivering in the cold and in desperate need of rescue.

As day turns to night and already frayed nerves wear thin, a deeper kind of chill descends, followed by an unexpected rush of warmth. Radu Muntean, the director of this tense, gripping, darkly funny and ultimately compassionate movie, wants to lead us into darkness, but he doesn’t want to leave us there.

Muntean knows the mythic potential of this Transylvanian forest landscape, but he also knows that magic often works best in moderation. If “Întregalde” has the spookiness of an old folk tale — and at times the deep, implacable shadows of a horror movie — it is first and foremost a work of rigorous realism, patient, methodical and disinclined to strain for its effects.


Like some of Muntean’s earlier movies (they include “Summer Holiday,” a.k.a.“Boogie,” and “Tuesday, After Christmas,” two superb dramas of marital discord), it turns on a series of events that might sound dull or banal on paper but which become mesmerizing through the sheer force of the filmmaker’s concentration, the seriousness of his moral inquiry and, above all, the unassuming brilliance of his actors.

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We’re dropped into a room with those actors right at the start, the camera moving vigorously through a crowded store where volunteers chatter merrily, fill bags with food, then load them into SUVs and head out to make their deliveries. It takes a while for us to sort out who’s who, though in time our attention gravitates toward Maria (Maria Popistasu, one of Muntean’s frequent collaborators), a woman with an easygoing manner but also a sharp gaze that misses nothing. Maria seems to take her charitable mission a bit more seriously than the others, some of whom seem awfully self-satisfied about their good deed of the month (or year). She’s also the one who — through a series of seemingly insignificant, even arbitrary decisions — nudges the story onto its fateful, harrowing course.

After riding for a while with a family she finds insufferable (it’s hard not to agree), Maria tactfully switches cars, hopping into a Jeep with two close friends, Dan (Alex Bogdan) and Ilinca (Ilona Brezoianu). Into the woods they go, chatting casually and sometimes conspiratorially about this and that; Muntean (who wrote the script with Razvan Radulescu and Alexandru Baciu) puts us right in the car with his characters, turning us into fellow travelers.

When they stop and offer a ride to a wandering older man named Kente (Luca Sabin), you might feel a familiar mix of tension, irritation, anxiety and pity as this none-too-agreeable new passenger climbs aboard. You might also blanch at the way Dan talks about Kente as if he weren’t there, remarking on his apparent senility, his filthy clothes and the general inconvenience he poses — and then wonder too if you would behave better in a similar situation.

Maybe you would and maybe you wouldn’t. The sly genius of “Întregalde” is how readily its characters — who can be cruel and decent, self-serving and well-meaning, often in the same instance — encourage the viewer to take their own moral inventory. Perhaps you, like me, can relate to men and women whose acts of charity are by turns admirable and crushingly inadequate and are done primarily on their terms and at their convenience. (In one of the movie’s most quietly pointed scenes, Maria and Ilinca drop in to visit an ailing woman, offering words of mild concern and then beating a hasty retreat, leaving her to drag her bag of goods through the house on her own.)

Two people, one mostly obscured, in a scene from the movie "Întregalde."
Maria Popistasu and Alex Bogdan in the movie “Întregalde.”
(Grasshopper Film)

Muntean puts these ethical considerations seamlessly into play with various logistical setbacks, as the Jeep rattles into impassable terrain and bogs down on an especially muddy road. There, Maria, Dan and Ilinca must wait and wait — sometimes with and sometimes without the unpredictable, uncontrollable Kente — for someone to help pull them out.

Muntean and his cinematographer, Tudor Vladimir Panduru, handle the physical challenges of the filmmaking seamlessly, using long camera takes to orchestrate, with seemingly unfakable veracity, a complex vehicular nightmare. (Among the ancillary benefits of “Întregalde”: You get a crash course in how to get a car unstuck.)

But Muntean proves equally attentive to the emotional and psychological fallout of this waiting game, as muscles, nerves and once-friendly dispositions are strained to the breaking point. Like more than a few filmmakers who have emerged from the Romanian cinematic renaissance of the last two decades, he’s a master at building tension through spare editing, an observational shooting style, dialogue that reveals but never expounds and a pointed absence of music.

He’s attuned to his characters’ vacillations between boredom and frustration, and also the discomfort of aching bones, hungry bellies and unwashed bodies. As a freezing cold night sets in and no help appears to be immediately forthcoming, Maria, Dan and Ilinca all get a taste of what it’s like to be treated with barely concealed indifference, placing them — at least temporarily — in the position of those they’re aiding.

That would include Kente, of course, who — as he soils himself, wanders off in every direction and talks his would-be saviors’ ears off — becomes a kind of rambling reminder that no good deed goes unpunished. (The wonderful Sabin, a nonprofessional actor, walks away with the movie tucked into one grubby pocket.) But he isn’t reduced to a device or symbol, and one of the movie’s best reminders is that people like Kente — dismissed as burdens on society, unable or unwilling to fend for themselves — can’t really be reduced to anything. They are there, an unignorable reality, and to care for them in any meaningful way will require humility rather than superiority, as well as a measure of self-recognition. We flatter ourselves if we think we’re the first to offer someone help, and also if we assume that their burdens are not also ours.


In Romanian with English subtitles

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes

Playing: Starts March 25, Laemmle Royal, West Los Angeles